Soul House in the Soul House

Michael Avitabile, flutist, gives his thoughts on playing Robert Honstein’s “Soul House” in the house which inspired the piece, in preparation for an upcoming concert at the Peabody Essex Museum.

One of the most beautiful and moving aspects of performing contemporary music is the inherent empathy imbued in a new work. In thinking about this concept, I’m drawn to Leonard Bernstein’s quote that, “any great work of art... revives and readapts time and space, and the measure of its success is the extent to which it makes you an inhabitant of that world — the extent to which it invites you in and lets you breathe its strange, special air.”

With a new piece of music, that surreal world Bernstein speaks of is our world. It is an interpretation of the same universe we all collectively inhabit. When we all occupy the same imaginative space created by a new piece of music, we are immersing ourselves in a shared human experience through the eyes and ears of another. In that piece of new music, that abstract universe is just the composer’s interpretation of the actual universe we all live in. It’s how he or she hears their own experiences in modern time.

The point of departure for Saturday evening’s program, Robert Honstein’s Soul House, is no exception. Honstein, who has been a close friend for a number of years, wrote the piece as an extended love letter to his childhood home. Each of the work’s nine movements is evocative of a different section of the house whether it be a Bay Window, Alcove, Backyard, or something more conceptual as with the piece’s concluding movement, Secret Place. It’s not often that we have the privilege to perform a work so deeply personal to the composer, especially one that is written for us. This piece becomes doubly special in that the world it creates and consequently invites the listener into is quite tangible - it’s a yellow house on Newlin Road in Princeton, NJ.

In October, the group had the special privilege of playing Soul House in the Soul House itself. As it turns out, Robert’s parents are selling the house and we desperately wanted to play the piece in the house before we could no longer do so. As we prepare to record the work, it seemed necessary to learn as much about the yellow house Newlin Road as possible. In a way, it was a musical recon mission.

While we expected to see the Bay Window, the Alcove, and Backyard we imaged in rehearsals for months prior, we didn’t expect the utterly life changing evening that came with performing in that house. As we had the entirely-too-meta experience of performing a piece about a house in that house, we couldn’t help but feel that we became part of the narrative from which Soul House was born. We were breathing the strange special air of the piece in the physical place that inspired it. And thus, what was already a very personal piece became much more personal. For us Soul House is not only about Rob’s childhood memories, it’s now colored with our own memories of being there.

The day of the concert was a long one to say the least. We had left another engagement in Ohio at 4am to catch a flight into Newark, NJ, and the post-flight afternoon consisted of heavy napping and semi-conscious pizza eating. This is an all too familiar tale to any traveling musician. That evening about fifty people were crammed into the foyer - in the crowd were members of Robert’s family, colleagues who would soon become new friends, and several of his parent’s neighborhood compatriots. The energy in the room was palpable and infectious, and would make anyone forget the most daunting of long travel days. The performance was followed by an evening of stories, laughter, and a candid round of vodka shots in the Backyard with Rob’s mom. Nights like that only happen a handful of times in one’s life.

As we prepare for a particularly special performance of Soul House in which memories are translated into movement by the brilliance of Urbanity Dance, I’m especially looking forward to recreating the yellow house on Newlin Road for each audience member. In keeping with Bernstein’s words, we aim to “revive” our collective experiences in the Soul House and simultaneously “readapt” the Peabody Essex Museum’s atrium to become the house in which we had such a life-altering evening. Contemporary music offers a distinct empathetic experience and few works are more resoundly true to that experience than Soul House.